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Trevor Stone's Journal
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Are Atheists Worse Extremists? 
17th-Sep-2010 02:17 pm
Om Chomsky
The Pope made a speech to the Queen of England which could be interpreted as comparing atheists to Nazis.
As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.

I leave open the question of whether Pope Benedict XVI prefers the sobering lessons of religious extremism from the 16th and 17th Centuries. It's true that many of the violent extremists of the 20th Century were explicitly atheistic: Stalin and other Soviets, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Khmer Rouge. But many other violent extremists were religious, even if their target selection wasn't motivated by religion. U.S. segregationists and South African apartheid advocates, conflicts in Rwanda, Guatemala, Vietnam... World Wars I and II were not about religion, but aside from the Soviets, all the major players were at least nominally religious. And regardless of the private views of Nazi leaders, their extremist persecutions were largely ethnic and social, not religious: being a nonpracticing Jew didn't buy reprieve, nor did they distinguish between Christian and atheist homosexuals.

Leonard Shlain wrote something interesting in The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: the conflicts between communism/socialism and capitalism in 19th and 20th Century Europe can be seen as a new phase in the continent's history of religious warfare. The communists don't believe in God, but they have religious texts (Das Kapital, for instance), prophets, and a sometimes-violent fervor based on a set of ideas.

So far the 21st Century has provided one major ideological conflict: Wahhabists and other extremist Islamic groups in a decentralized fight against imperialism and secular and insufficiently-religious governments. And there are conflicts which mix nationalism with religion that have spilled over from the last century: Israelis and Palestinians in the near east and Muslims and Hindus in Pakistani/Indian border lands. But the bloodiest conflicts, in eastern Congo and southern Sudan, are about concerns much older than religious conflict: land and resources. And as the world population grows and the climate gets more volatile, these sorts of conflicts can only be expected to spring up more often. The important thing isn't what the folks involved believe, it's what they have and what they want.
17th-Sep-2010 10:44 pm (UTC)
> let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life

Conveniently assumes that there's no ethical behavior (or virtue) that doesn't spring from religion. A particularly amusing assumption given the recent news stories wherein the Catholic church seems to be the last refuge of pedophiles. ;]

17th-Sep-2010 11:19 pm (UTC)
Well, this pope would certainly know about Nazis, now wouldn't he?
20th-Sep-2010 04:30 pm (UTC) - Extremism is a religion
Similar to the notion that folks who hate Muslim terrorists and therefore persecute Muslims are focusing on the wrong word, I would suggest that Catholic extremists and atheist extremists and fill-in-the-blank extremists have led ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny. Doesn't "extremist" imply a truncated vision? If a philosophy had an expansive or inclusionist vision, it would be all over the spectrum and not, as "extreme" indicates, limited to one end or another.

Which leads me to wonder if extremism is a "bad" thing. All those moved to create dramatic change are extremists. They hold strong convictions that something needs to be a certain way, a way that it is currently not, therefore a way that is not in keeping with the daily choices of a majority of people or at least of those in power. Can we seek to effect change without seeking to violate someone else's free will? Or at least passing judgment that our own vision is superior to theirs and then trying to persuade that person to surrender their vision in favor of ours?

The Pope must recognize that, without Judas' betrayal, there would have been no crucifixion and resurrection, so someone seeking to stop Judas from betraying Jesus would have been exercising a reductive vision of a person and his destiny, which ultimately could have nipped Christianity in the bud. Perhaps the Pope should acknowledge, then, that Hitler and Stalin and Nicolae Ceauşescu all had their personhood and destiny in God's expansive vision.

Shall, "I was fulfilling my destiny," be a defense?

I believe there's a passage in the neighborhood of Revelation 3:15-16 that says something about being either hot or cold; that if you are lukewarm God will spit you out of His mouth. God seems to be advocating extremism, and not particular about which extreme. Seems to me the Pope is at odds with God, here.
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